Innovation, Motivations

Ronnie Screwvala – two interviews

“Good ideas always find an investor, so there is no point compromising with the idea:” Ronnie Screwvala

20 years back when the word entrepreneur was rarely pronounced correctly, a 19 year old man in the midst of great legacy businesses turned out to be a stand-out first generation entrepreneur, who fearlessly kept invading into undiscovered territories.

After starting as a local cable operator, he went on to finding United Television Group (UTV), ventured into sports with Kabaddi and funded e-commerce enterprises like Lenskart and Zivame. While the world was witnessing catastrophes, he decided to turn philanthropist with the Swadesh Foundation. From Shanti on Doordarshan to Swadesh on the big screen, from Rang de Basanti to Dev D, he has enumerable number of trophies in his cabinet.
The distinguished voyage that ignites million minds, the role model for aspiring entrepreneurs in India – Ronnie Screwvala in conversation with’s Anirban Roy Choudhury, shares his priceless guidelines for young aspirants.


What triggered you to pen Dream with Your Eyes Open?

Entrepreneurship is a challenge and the perception that only people with huge initial capital can become an entrepreneur is a myth and that’s the message I wanted to convey and that’s where the book came into picture.

Dream With Your Eyes Open is not an autobiography but a voyage that has both highs and lows, failures and success, encouragement and demotivation. Another reason behind penning down the book is to encourage aspirants to go for entrepreneurship passionately and not take it as a second option.

What do you think is stopping India from becoming a global leader when it comes to entrepreneurship?

20 years back when I started, people could hardly pronounce the word entrepreneurship. Even today, while on the one side, there are a fair amount of businesses, on the other, there is huge parental pressure of going and getting a good job. Entrepreneurship has always been plan B. But that doesn’t stand true.

One can either go and get a good job or turn an entrepreneur – both are equally respectable. The most important reason for less growth is the fear of failure. In India, people don’t talk about this fear and if they do, they can’t handle it. For most people, failure means the end of the game… the fear that everything is over is what acts as an obstacle.

The thought process needs to be that if you failed yesterday, you should see today as another day and move forward. When you have such a fear about failure, you don’t start. That is one of the reasons why India is ranked between 140 to 150 when it comes to entrepreneuring nations.

How does an aspiring entrepreneur deal with the intriguing question of ‘How do I get funded’? Do you think in order to find that answer, the basic idea gets feeble or compromised?

Everyone in India thinks that you need an investor to start a business and finding one is the biggest challenge. In my opinion, that’s not the procedure that you need to follow always. If we look at the entrepreneurs who are prospering today, all of them bootstrapped themselves on their own. Bootstrapping is a must when it comes to entrepreneurship. You have your idea and you should start executing it and only after you reach a particular level, should you go for an investor.

Your success ratio goes up if you bootstrap first and then go for an investor. If you get an investor early on, you get spoilt. The entire work culture changes and half the time the investor runs the business that you are supposed to run. The hunger is much more when you are doing it on your own and hence if you have an idea, you should start executing it and after you have concept proofed it to yourself, you go for the investor. A good idea will always find an investor therefore there is no point compromising with the idea.

Is stagnancy another reason behind the low rate of entrepreneurship growth in India? Do you think one should have the hunger of invading into new territories?

It’s good that these questions are coming now because a few years back, no one thought about what happens after the substantial establishment of a business. In India, after a certain level we refrain from moving forward, get stagnant and eventually start downscaling.

In business, downscaling begins the moment stagnancy sets in. So, one should always be open to venturing into new territories as entrepreneurship doesn’t mean earning a livelihood but generating employment. The more we explore, the more are our chances of succeeding.

Do you think digital can give birth to a non-advertiser source of revenue model, which will be subscription based?

If we see globally Google, which is the world’s number one company, has taken its platform YouTube and left it free. It runs on advertising. Facebook is also on advertising. If we look at it from that perspective, that’s where it’s going.

Let’s face it, in two weeks’ time, a newly released movie is available on Tata Sky for Rs 75 but people are refraining from opting for that as there are pirated DVDs available for Rs 35. Piracy is a huge barrier of subscription based model and to counter piracy we need consumer behaviour to change, which is a slow process and will take time.

Digital media is cost efficient. The capital investment is less when compared to the other mass medium platforms and hence there is a slim chance of having a subscription based revenue model. However, it will take time as there are bandwidth and technological issues that need to be sorted first. For now, I think advertising is going to be a long-term stay.

Don’t you think an investor, after financing the concept, at some point of time starts regulating the strategic affairs?

If you are a strong entrepreneur, you will never let anyone regulate you. I think there is a misconception that an investor comes in to regulate. Investors have two aspects: firstly, his risk capital is higher than most entrepreneurs because he is choosing one out of 999 and secondly, all investors get into a portfolio investment mode where they know out of 10, five will fail, three will somehow sustain and two will succeed. Who else in the entire cycle has got a risk of five failures out of 10? So, investors are seasoned veterans, who take their decision after enormous number of research and knowledge so that they put their money in right place.

Investors’ key is to back entrepreneurs with whatever they are doing and not regulate them. So it’s a misconception that an investor regulates. Yes, if things go wrong, an investor may get hyper and interfere with a perception that he can add value. It’s a myth that investors regulate a company.

What’s your opinion on the Indian eco-system? Is there enough encouragement and support from the Government’s side for an aspiring entrepreneur?

I don’t think it’s the government’s job to support. The thing that everyone is looking at is ease to do business. So the business environment has to be simplified by the government. When it comes to taxation, with 30 per cent tax we are one of the least taxed nations of the world. The tax structure in the UK and the US is higher than India. With the Goods and Service Tax (GST), it will come down to 16 per cent, which solves many problems. In the UK, value added tax (VAT) is at 17 per cent so there is no room for blaming the government.

The reason why service tax was increased is to bring it closer to GST. The complication lies in the number of regulations and multiple-window clearances. The media is the least controlled in India. In the US, you have to be a citizen of the United States to be able to operate any digital or broadcast media, whereas in India anyone can operate an entertainment venture and hence when it comes to democracy and freedom, India beyond question beats the rest.

Regulations make doing business complicated in India as there is no single body that deals with all the regulatory issues, which makes opening a business in 10 days impossible.

Do you think it’s important to add entrepreneurship as one of the major aspect when it comes to academic upbringing of the youth in India?

There are 10 million graduates coming out of college every year. Do we have jobs for all of them? The answer is a big no. The only way of tackling that problem is adding entrepreneurship in the curriculum as early as possible. I started at 19, so an early start is possible provided you think about it at an early stage. The manifestation should be there. The target should not be to get a job and then become an entrepreneur.

Managers and presidents of big companies should think about where they will stand ten years down the line when there will be a hundred million skilled youth looking for jobs. Hence they should devote time into entrepreneurship, which will provide job to those skilled people.

You are venturing in motorsport now. Can you throw some light on it?

Well, yes I am venturing into motorsport. However, the report stating an investment of Rs 300 crore is incorrect. Nowadays, whatever you do, a zero gets added automatically. Here motor sports doesn’t mean cars. It caters to bikers in India, which is the largest bike selling nation of the world. The over 250cc category has grown at an incredibly high rate in last five years and we are looking at a tourism based sport. Currently, we are researching on the ten most exotic places in India, where on television one will enjoy India’s natural beauty along with skilled bikers. The plan is to make it a tourism cum sporting event.

In the beginning, we will get a mix of Indian and international bikers, as the aim is to make it world class. Each team will have one Indian and one foreign biker for the first two years and after that we would look at making it a 100 per cent Indian event.

From the first super-flop Dil Ke Jharoke Mein to the blockbuster entrepreneur writing his book, how will you describe the versatile voyage of yours?

The opening four lines in my book is about the biggest failure of my life Dil Ke Jharoke Mein, which is what I started with. The concept behind starting the book with that was to convey that failure is just a part of life and not the end of the world.

My journey so far has been to not stop after a failure but to keep moving on. Cable was different, UTV was different and sports is different. I have always rediscovered myself and for me that’s the way forward.

By Anirban Roy Choudhury IndianTelivisionDot Com, 08 Apr 2015 08:45 pm

Ronnie Screwvala reveals the secret of his success

By Ananya Ghosh |Sunday Mid-Day 12-Apr-2015
Ronnie Screwvala, founder of UTV Group, Unilazer Ventures and Swades Foundation, is a first-generation entrepreneur who was named among the most influential people of the 21st century by Esquire magazine. He is a man who believes in dreaming big and dreaming with his eyes open
Ronnie Screwvala, founder, Unilazer Ventures
He started a toothbrush-manufacturing business with a machine that was on its way to the scrap yard. He brought the concept of cable television to India at a time when people hardly knew how to use a remote control. He started UTV Software Communications — a television company with a meagre capital of a R37,500 and landed a deal with Rupert Murdoch of News Corp. He came up with the first Hindi daily soap that went on to become a milestone in the history and evolution of television industry.

Ronnie Screwvala at his office in Worli Pic/Suresh KK

Ronnie Screwvala at his office in Worli Pic/Suresh KK

He launched the first Hindi channel for kids and young adults that became so popular that Disney came calling. And he made a foray into the film industry as an ‘outsider’ and went on to produce some of the biggest box office hits of the decade. Rohinton ‘Ronnie’ Screwvala is a man of many firsts and a man who has entrepreneurship embedded in his DNA.

First generation entrepreneur
He vehemently refuses to believe that some special talent is responsible for his success. “I don’t believe in any kind of ‘X-factor’. I am a first-generation entrepreneur. I came from a lower-middle class family where everyone had 9 to 5 jobs. All I had was the clarity of thought and confidence. My initial failures as well as my theatre days helped me gain perspective,” says Screwvala. However he quickly adds, “Not everyone is cut out to become an entrepreneur. You don’t have to be born with it, but you need to really want it.”

Morning shows the day
When still in school, he would gather all the kids of his building and organise what he calls ‘play-cum-concerts’. Handbills would be circulated in the locality inviting audiences. And of course, the entertainment came with a price tag. He remembers earning his first buck by organising such a performance when he was merely 10 years old. He would soon graduate to more innovative ventures—like collecting money to let people in their verandah to watch the stars gathered in the cinema hall next to their house. Ask him about these initial entrepreneurial ventures and he laughs, “When you look back and reflect on these now, it seems I always had this keeda in me to become an entrepreneur. However, trust me, at that point in time, I did them just for fun.”

All glory is fleeting
In 2008 Esquire named him among the 75 most influential people of the 21st century and a year after, Time magazine put him on it list of 100 most influential people. However, to Screwvala these are merely tags. “Of course you feel good when you receive such honours. But does it really change anything? Moreover, by the time a recognition comes, I have already moved on to a different project and I don’t like looking back,” says the entertainment czar who after stepping down as Managing Director of Disney UTV(Disney acquired UTV in 2012) and turned his attention towards Unilazer Ventures Pvt Ltd, a private equity firm that invests in start-ups.
However, in-between cementing the base of this newly launched company, Screwvala also wrote a book in his ‘free time’ — Dream With Your Eyes Open. Published by Rupa Publication, it is an autobiography of sorts aimed to inspire young entrepreneurs.

In the book, he talks about his first failure, which was quite literal. Always a good student, Screwvala had flunked his first year BCom exams. Reason? Over confidence! It was a huge blow, but he not only reappeared for the exams and came out with flying colours, but also learnt a lesson he never forgot—”All glory is fleeting.” And since that day Screwvala, who is credited with many first in the entertainment industry, has never let success get into his head. Nor has he let failures stop him. “Failure only meant I had to try harder and not that I had to retreat,” he says The ‘serial entrepreneur’

It is a tag that makes Screwvala extremely uncomfortable. “It is not like dabbling in non-related industries like salt and steel. All my ventures have been in the same industry, apart from of course the toothbrush manufacturing one. All I have done is just taken the next logical step!” he says. From television that ‘next step’ was the movies. And UTV Motion Pictures was born. However, what Screwvala initially didn’t take into account that they will be the ‘outsiders’ in the industry swarming with veterans. “We realised that we had to do something different from what everyone was already doing, and doing so well. We would have failed if we would have thought of competing with a Yash Chopra or a Karan Johar. Although Chalte Chalte was still a formula movie, we followed it up with Swades, Lakshya, Rang De Basanti—each a breakout movie. It was a chart we wanted.”

While the company was not hesitant to put its money on the edgy, trembling-on -the-brink-of-bizarre DevD, it took up the simple story of Khosla ka Ghosla with equal enthusiasm. “Khosla ka Ghosla was a story many of us had lived and all of us can identify with. People go to movies for all the song and dance, but they also go to see their stories.” However, Screwvala was always sure of one thing — the movie had to resonate with the audiance, and make money. “At the end of the day you have to keep in mind that you are doing commerce and not arts,” he points out.

You wake up with an idea
How does he manage to come up with such pioneering ideas? “You can wake up in the morning with a new idea. If you are pioneering something, you can’t do much research before starting it. The research part comes after you have launched the business in order to fine-tune it. But, at the end of the day, you have to size up the market and go with your gut feeling. And by ‘gut feeling’ I mean an evolved thought process based on the sum total of
your experiences.”

New frontiers
And today armed with this gut feeling he is poised to take some huge steps in sectors as diverse as education, sports and digital media. USport, UEd and UDigital are his three new babies. But why this tectonic shift? “I had built a production house from scratch and worked on it for twenty long years. It would have been an insult to my intelligence if I would have stuck to the same industry after leaving Disney UTV.

It will prove that I have no fresh ideas and can’t think beyond media. Every new venture is difficult in the beginning. You can say I get a kick from the difficulty level of a project,” says Screwvala. And the last sentence explains his CV.

While UDigital provides digital brand services including multi-genre and multi-lingual content, UEd is focussing on providing online post-graduation and specialisations which have a demand but is still not available in the country. The company plans to tie up with government universities and apart from providing the technology, will also create content for the courses. On the other hand, USport already owns UMumba—the team that grabbed many eyeballs in the last Pro Kabaddi League.”Kabaddi will be phenomenal in India, although it is football that will become the international sport eventually,” prophesies Screwvala whose company has big plans for football, which he is reluctant to divulge.

The company is also looking a mobile sports — the bike-related ones to be precise. Again an uncharted territory in India. “More bikes are sold in India that anywhere else in the world. We are going to combine tourism with sports. With bikes you can go to the most exotic of locations such as Ladakh, Diu, Pondicherry. It will boost the tourism industry of these places as well. Also, imagine watching a sport on television with such scenic backgrounds! These are all fun and disruptive things I am doing, why would I even think of going back to media?” he smiles.

The other side
However, not every venture he takes up is with the aim to make money and Swades Foundation, which is today working in six blocks of Raigad — is the other side of this astute businessman. “It is an execution foundation working in rural Mahrashtra to provide water, sanitation, education and livelihood. The aim is to elevate one million people from poverty every five to six years. And we are already into our third year of the first cycle,” says Screwvala, who believe is leading from the front and makes frequent trips to Raigad — the base camp for all the activities of the foundation.

And indeed it is quite different from doling out instruction or taking crucial business decisions sitting in an air-conditioned office ensconced in greenery. “It is rough and tough. It is 20 times more challenging than figuring out how to launch a cable TV network or produce a movie,” he agrees. But it is not the heat and dust he is referring to. “Our main challenge is to build trust among the local community and educate them. We want the farmers to have a second crop, we want all expectant mothers to deliver their child in a hospital…but it is not easy to convince them,” says Screwvala. Then ‘easy’ things hardyinterests this man!

My Favourites
Film: Rang De Basanti
Actor: Salma Hayek
Magazine: The Economist
Book: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche
Destination: Kashmir
Sport: Kabaddi

Inside Track
Born: September 8, 1956
Education: BCom from Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics
Mantra in life: All glory is fleeting


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